Like an intense, beautiful, and deeply moving piece of music, Tremain’s captivating historical novel hits all the right notes.
When we first meet Gustav, the protagonist of Tremain’s (Merivel: A Man of His Time, 2012, etc.) exquisite novel, he is 5 years old and living with his none-too-happy widowed mother, Emilie, in their extremely modest apartment in the small Swiss town of Matzlingen. The year is 1947, and the postwar mood is grim, yet Gustav finds patches of color, flavor, and beauty in the drab, gray world he and Emilie inhabit: the dark purple of a nearly new lipstick he discovers in the gratings of the church he and his mother clean to supplement her income from working in a cheese cooperative; the taste of Emilie’s knodel; the bloom of the cherry tree in their building’s courtyard. Gustav’s mother has offered him one chief lesson: he must “master himself,” as, she says, his late father did before him. “You have to be like Switzerland,” she tells him. “You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then, you will have the right kind of life.” Into this relatively cheerless world walks Anton, a talented yet moody Jewish musical prodigy who becomes Gustav’s most treasured friend. In concert with Gustav’s story, Tremain, who won the 2008 Orange Prize for The Road Home, also tells that of his father, Erich, a strong, handsome assistant police chief who followed his conscience and his heart. Eventually, Gustav’s lifelong friendship with Anton helps him to unlearn the stern lessons of his mother and unlock the secrets and yearnings of his own heart.
Spanning the decades from 1937 to 2002, Tremain’s novel is less sprawling than it is deeply intimate, a soul-stirring song about friendship, conscience, and love.